This is why it takes you so long to fall asleep at night

Welcome to Stylist’s Sleep Diaries, where we’re taking a deep-dive into one of the most important (and elusive) factors in our day-to-day lives: sleep. To help us understand more about it, we’re inviting women to track their bedtime routines over a five-day period – and presenting these diaries to sleep expert Dr Nerina Ramlakhan for analysis.  

In this week’s Sleep Diaries, a 33-year-old project manager learns how to reduce the amount of time it takes her to fall asleep.

A little about me:

Age: 33

Occupation: project manager for a charity

Number of hours’ sleep you get each night: 7-8 hours

Number of hours’ sleep you wish you got each night: 8 hours

Do you grind your teeth/have nightmares: teeth grinding no, nightmares yes – or just stressful/hectic/anxious dreams

How much water you drink on average per day: lots – at least two litres

How much caffeine do you drink on average per day: two coffees (early morning) and a can of Coke (lunch), every day. None after 1.30pm.

How much exercise do you do on average per week: three runs, one or two pilates workouts, and I make sure to get a long walk in on the days where I don’t run or work out.

Day 1

I wake up on Sunday morning at about 5am, hung over from my friends’ wedding the day before. This is about a fortnightly occurrence; while I didn’t get to bed that late – about half past midnight – I slept terribly and know I’ll pay for it today!

Thankfully, I fall back to sleep for a few more hours, before I’m up and craving some healthy breakfast. I pop out to get some fruit and yoghurt and wash it down with two coffees. I’m in quite a good mood but feeling tired, and my body never lets me nap during the day.

I spend the rest of the morning resting and drinking gallons of water before having some goat’s cheese and tomatoes on toast for lunch, plus a Coke and a couple of biscuits too. I’m so tired but my partner and I go for a long walk in the park in the afternoon – I hate to have a day without exercise.

We get home and veg out in front of the TV. I have veggie noodles for dinner then binge on half a tub of ice cream and tons of biscuits, before going to sleep at 10:30pm. Amazingly for me, I get to sleep super quickly.

“I pop out to get some fruit and yoghurt and wash it down with two coffees.”

Day 2

On Monday, my alarm goes off at 6:30am. I managed to sleep right through the night with a few stressful dreams, but I still feel like I need more sleep, so I decide to forego my morning run and fall back asleep cuddling my partner. We’re renovating our flat so staying with family at the moment – it’s stressful and the bed we’re in isn’t the most comfortable.

Eventually, I get up at 7am, still not feeling caught up on the sleep lost from Saturday night. I’m kicking myself for it. I get ready for work and have a healthy breakfast of sugar-free yogurt and fruit again, plus two coffees.

I’m not feeling as fresh and energised as I’d like but I open my laptop and get working. Lunch is a salmon salad and an apple followed by a quick walk to the shops, then I’m back at my desk working until 6pm.

After work my partner and I go for a 45-minute walk to the park, then I have a vegan Korean rice bowl and a couple of dates for dinner and head to bed at 10pm. I scroll Instagram – I have this private account that follows relaxing, restful, positive things only, so I tend to scroll that to zone out – then put my head down at 10:30pm before finally drifting off at 11:30pm.

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Day 3 

I was woken up by my partner getting up at about 5:30am. He’s going through a stressful period at work and tends to get up in the night or very early and go downstairs. I go back to sleep then get up at 6:30am, have a coffee and browse social media in bed (I’m on screens an awful lot) before going for a 4km run.

Once I’m back I shower, have yogurt and fruit and another coffee for breakfast and get working. I’m working a half-day today so after avocado on toast and an apple for lunch, I head to the dentist and visit my mum.

In the afternoon I work on my side-project, a food blog that I run, then dinner is breaded fish, veg and a date for dessert while watching TV. I watch a lot of reality TV to zone out generally. I head to bed at 10pm, scroll social media, turn off the lights at 10:30pm and fall asleep after about half an hour of my mind cycling through different songs, memories, plans and other things.

“I watch a lot of reality TV to zone out generally.”

Day 4

I actually sleep the whole way through the night and without any busy dreams which is unusual for me, and wake up at 6:30am feeling rested.

I’m working from the office today so I walk the hour-long walk in, having yogurt and a large coffee at my desk for breakfast. Work’s quite busy today; I break for lunch – a chicken salad, diet Coke and a banana – at 1pm, with a quick walk and some social media, and then have desk work and meetings until 6pm.

I meet some friends for drinks after work at a sunny central London pub, have a vegan burger and fries for dinner and a few glasses of wine. I then make my way home, snacking on a biscuit and chugging water before bed at 11:30pm. It takes me about half an hour to fall asleep – my brain’s super buzzy after seeing everyone! I watch a 10-minute ASMR video that sends me off.

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Day 5

It’s Thursday. I didn’t sleep fantastically last night and kept waking up thirsty, but I’m up at 6:30am and have a quick coffee in bed before doing a half-hour pilates class before work.

I’m working from home again today and have my usual yoghurt and fruit with a bit of seed and nut granola this time for protein, plus my second daily coffee. It’s always two a day each morning, without fail.

I spend the morning working away at my desk dealing with a busy mix of meetings and desk work. I stop for a chicken salad, apple and a diet Coke for lunch at half 12, browsing beach holidays somewhere hot – I can’t wait to get a break from all the work and life business.

Finally, at 6pm, my partner and I head for a walk to see how the work’s going on our flat. Dinner’s a crab and spinach pasta when we get back, followed by two more dates (my favourite) and bed at 10:30pm. We’re heading on a day trip tomorrow and I’m excited so I fall asleep after about 45 minutes of monkey mind, waking up a couple of times in the night and having busy, adventurous dreams.

So, what does it all mean? A sleep expert offers her thoughts

Dr Nerina Ramlakhan, sleep expert and professional physiologist, says: “You’re a classic case of ‘Tired But Wired’ and need to read my first book of the same title. You’re stuck in a fatigue cycle needing caffeine to get you going and your ensuing lifestyle choices are keeping you stuck in this cycle and you end up, most nights, too wired to sleep.

“I want to help you to break this cycle and it is possible. This will involve making choices that enable you to live from the right part of your nervous system so that you’re able to wind down and sleep easily. Currently, you’re running in the sympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for producing the stress hormones (eg adrenaline) and your lifestyle choices are perpetuating this. No wonder you can’t fall asleep easily and your sleep is filled with nightmares and anxious dreams.”

Sleep expert Dr Nerina Ramlakhan

Dr Nerina continues: “So what to do? You need my 5 non-negotiables, starting with a nutrient rich breakfast within 30-45 minutes of rising, cutting back on caffeine and not drinking coffee until you’ve eaten (sorry!). Your tech hygiene is poor and the bedtime scrolling needs to stop – I’m sure you know this, but can you value yourself enough to do it?”

If you would like to take part in Stylist’s Sleep Diaries, please email [email protected] with your name, age and any sleep problems you’re dealing with, using ‘SLEEP DIARIES’ as the subject. We look forward to hearing from you.

Lead image design: Ami O’Callaghan

Other images: Getty/Dr Nerina Ramlakhan

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